### What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

#### Posted by John Baez

A while back, Steven Krantz asked me to write an opinion piece about math blogging in the *AMS Notices*. I asked you what I should say, and we had a great conversation about it.

Today, with the deadline fast approaching, I quickly cranked out a draft of this piece. I’d love to hear your comments. But beware: there’s a word limit of 800 words, and I’ve spent 750 so far! So, I can’t add much unless I take something away.

One thing I will add is a pointer to the online list of math blogs and wikis at the *n*-Lab, which also contains a link to our previous conversation. Do you know math blogs and wikis that should be on that list, but aren’t? If so, please add them!

Here it is:

Should you blog about mathematics? Before I answer this, I should say what “blogging” is, since there are probably still 3 or 4 people who don’t know.

A “web log”, or “blog” for short, lets you write about whatever you want and make it visible online. Your entries are displayed in reverse-chronological order, people reading them can post comments, and you can reply to those comments. I could describe how to set up a blog, but that would make it seem harder than it is. Any idiot can do it, and many do. Websites like Wordpress and Blogger will lead you through the process step by step— and they’re free.

For a while, math blogging was held back by the difficulty of including equations. Now Wordpress allows for TeX, and with some work you can install it on Blogger as well. So, we are now seeing a flowering of math blogs—and for some mathematicians, blogging has become an important part of their research activity.

I started blogging in a primitive way back in 1993, with an online column called

This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics. The idea was to write brief summaries of papers I’d just read, and explain interesting stuff. I soon discovered that when I made mistakes, readers would kindly correct them—and when I admitted that I didn’t understand things, experts would appear from nowhere and help me out. Other math bloggers report similar results. If you explain math in a friendly, informal but clear way, it helps you understand things better–and you’ll get readers eager to repay you with with useful information. Some of these readers may become friends, or collaborators.In 2006, I joined forces with David Corfield and Urs Schreiber to start

The $n$-Category Café, a group blog on math, physics and philosophy. My column is now just a small part of lively discussion of topics ranging from elliptic cohomology, tensor categories and type theory to “mathematics as a vocation”–and all these examples were taken just from comments that appeared on one randomly chosen day!By now there are over 50 math blogs in English. At least four are by Fields Medalists: in particular, Timothy Gowers and Terry Tao have famously popular ones. Some math blogs are focused on specific topics: for example,

Low-Dimensional TopologyandMotivic Stuff. Some roam all over the map. Some start with great enthusiasm but sink into inactivity. To keep the conversation going, it helps to team up with a group of friends. A great example is theSecret Blogging Seminar, run by 8 recent math Berkeley Ph.D.’s.Should you blog about mathematics? Judging from what I’ve seen, you should do it if you like explaining things, enjoy informal public discussions, and can keep a cool head when tempers rise. Some mathematicians are too worried about making a fool of themselves in public to enjoy blogging. Others are too afraid of offending people. And if my joke about ‘idiots’ upset you, blogging may be too hard-knuckled for you.

Even for those with the right personality and social skills, running a good blog takes practice. So, if you haven’t done so already, spend a while reading blogs before trying to start your own. The same problems keep coming up, and you’ll see better and worse ways to deal with them.

Of course, there’s no need to start your own blog to get some of the benefits. You can get a lot out of just reading blogs, and much more if you ask or answer questions. Math blogs are also a great way for students and amateurs to get a sense of what research is like. Academic math bloggers spend a lot of time talking about conferences, theorems they’d like to prove, papers they’re writing, and many other things that aren’t visible in the published literature. The discussions that were once confined to the math department lounge are now conducted worldwide. While not without problems, this is a truly wonderful thing.

Here are a few examples of what math blogs can do, all taken from the

The $n$-Category Café. Blog entries by Urs Schreiber (a postdoc in Germany) led to online discussions which blossomed into collaborative papers with Dave Roberts (a graduate student in Australia) and James Stasheff (the well-known American topologist)—neither of whom he had ever met, except online. A discussion on stratified spaces has been developed into a paper by Jonathan Woolf. And perhaps most importantly, an online community has formed that has differential geometers, topologists, category theorists regularly talking to physicists, computer scientists, and philosophers of mathematics.The internet has been around for a while, but we are far from figuring out everything we can do with it. The arXiv, electronic journals and math blogs are just a few of the possibilities. Recently math bloggers have been trying some new ideas. The

$n$-Category Cafénow has an associated wiki, the “$n$-Lab”, which provides a place for collaborative research and expository writing on math. Timothy Gowers and Terry Tao are using blogs together with a wiki to organize a series of “Polymath” projects, where large numbers of people cooperate to prove theorems. Thanks to Jacques Distler, the arXiv now has links to blog entries that discuss the articles there. Mathematicians are discussing more ambitious systems for reviewing and commenting on papers online. One can imagine many more experiments with the technology we have, and still more with the technology yet to come. Some will work, some will not. It’s an adventure.

## Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Hi John,

There’s a typo at the beginning of paragraph 6. I’m guessing that should be “By now there”